Caitlin McDermott (COL ’23) was hoping for a Zoom class environment that was educational, interesting and respectful of her identity as a deaf student when she began taking the course “Forensic Linguistics” in spring 2021. What McDermott said she ended up with was a professor who refused to adhere to her accommodations, which the Georgetown University Academic Resource Center (ARC) had granted her that same spring.
Professor Natalie Schilling, who taught the course, failed to provide McDermott with adequate access to her interpreter — whom McDermott has as part of her ARC-provided accommodations — during class and in office hours.
“She always failed to put my translator in breakout rooms with me, so I could rarely participate. That sucked a lot, so that limited my participation,” McDermott told The Hoya. “She also didn’t let my translator come into office hours.”
Students have the right to receive accommodations and have them respected by professors, according to Ron Hager, managing attorney for education and employment at the National Disability Rights Network.
“If there has been an agreed-to accommodation between the university and the student, and individual faculty don’t honor that agreement, that’s a clear violation of the law,” Hager said in an interview with The Hoya.
Across several academic departments, The Hoya has identified a pattern of professors ignoring, neglecting and rejecting disabled students’ accommodations, suggesting a lack of university oversight in ensuring professors respect students’ legal right to academic accommodations.
On Feb. 4 — over 12 hours after this story was published online — a university spokesperson requested that The Hoya include an additional statement. The university spokesperson did not include this comment in the original response to The Hoya’s multiple requests for comment prior to publication.
“Multiple faculty members identified in this piece dispute the characterizations presented in this article,” according to a university spokesperson.
Repeated Refusals, Negligence
The Hoya spoke with five students who reported incidents of professors failing to meet their ARC disability accommodations. The Hoya has independently verified the enrollment of all students named in the courses discussed.
According to a university spokesperson, the ARC strives to be an inclusive environment that helps students succeed.
“Every accommodation is individualized, based upon the student, their demonstrated needs, and the nature of the courses in which they are requesting accommodation,” the spokesperson wrote to The Hoya.
However, some accommodations are not considered reasonable, according to the university spokesperson.
“Accommodations that significantly compromise essential academic requirements or curricular goals of the course are not considered reasonable,” the spokesperson wrote.
When asked if the university permits professors to reject accommodations approved by the ARC, the university spokesperson did not comment.
Throughout the spring 2021 semester, Schilling neglected to provide some of McDermott’s accommodations, including an interpreter, trigger warnings and sending the syllabus before the semester began, McDermott told The Hoya.
Furthermore, immediately before presenting her final presentation for the class, McDermott said another student in the class presented the exact triggering content that her accommodations specifically state she must be warned about beforehand. Schilling provided her with no such warning, McDermott said.
“She was very much like, ‘It’s not my problem if you don’t get it or if you can’t keep up,’ so I was like, ‘How am I supposed to do my final, which is 45% of my grade, right after a very triggering presentation?” McDermott said.
When The Hoya contacted Schilling, she refused to provide a specific comment on the situation.
“I am not permitted to comment on individual student cases,” Schilling wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Individual student information is protected by law and cannot be disclosed, so the university nor professors can comment on specific cases under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
Under the 1973 Americans with Disabilities Act, both private and public colleges and universities must provide equal access to education for students with disabilities. Georgetown’s ARC assesses individual students’ need for accommodations based on documentation from medical professionals and are determined on a case-by-case basis.
After submitting documentation, students are required to meet with an ARC administrator within the first few weeks of each semester, during which they receive accommodation letters for their professors.
Gwyneth Murphy (SFS ’23) met with the ARC during her first-year fall semester and secured 10 accommodations, including double time and a private room for exams. That same fall, Murphy met with one of her professors in the economics department to discuss these accommodations, but he immediately threw the accommodations letter in the trash, she told The Hoya.
“He read it over, and then he just threw it out in front of me while I was standing there,” Murphy said in an interview with The Hoya. “I just remember being like, ‘Alright, this is my first academic accommodation meeting ever as a college student,’ and I thought this was just how it was going to be.”
Murphy requested to withhold the name of the professor because she hopes to improve the treatment of disability accommodations on campus instead of subjecting professors to judgment, she said.
“I believe in restorative justice. I don’t think they need to be publicly scrutinized,” Murphy said. “They are all good people at the end of the day, but it’s just a massive oversight. They have a lot to learn, and they caused harm.”
The following spring, Murphy once again faced a professor — this time in a Spanish class — who failed to adhere to her accommodations. One of Murphy’s accommodations is to have a private, no-distraction space for taking tests, but over Zoom, the professor did not accommodate this, she said.
“I can’t be in a Zoom room with a bunch of other students. That’s not a no-distraction space,” Murphy said. “Despite the fact that I told them that, they didn’t understand and actually trapped me without me knowing that I’d be on a Zoom call with other people and start the exam.”
During the final exam, Murphy said she began to have a panic attack and had to take her medication on Zoom in front of all the other students.
The Hoya reached out to the department of Spanish and Portuguese for comment. While department chair Emily Francomano initially provided comment, she later contacted The Hoya to rescind her statement, stating that the university had advised her to refer The Hoya to the Media Relations Office.
That same spring, Ace Frazier (MSB ’24) said their accounting professor, Xiaoli Tian, ignored their ARC accommodations, which they received for diagnosed bipolar disorder.
Despite repeatedly requesting they receive extensions on assignments — which is listed in their ARC accommodations letter — Tian refused to provide this accommodation, according to Frazier.
Without this accommodation, Frazier had difficulty completing assignments, they said.
“These issues are getting to the point where things are about to spill over, and I’m gonna spill them over,” Frazier said in an interview with The Hoya. “That’s just what it’s like being disabled sometimes. Everything just hits you all at once. You can’t catch a break, because you don’t have the systems in place to help you.”
Tian did not respond to The Hoya’s request for comment.
On April 1, 2020, Frazier requested an excused absence from the accounting class for mental health reasons. Receiving excused absences is not one of Frazier’s ARC accommodations. Despite Frazier’s mental health concerns, however, Tian told Frazier they must still attend the Zoom class.
In the same email thread, obtained by The Hoya, Frazier proceeded to detail the challenges they were facing due to their bipolar disorder.
“Every day is agony for me,” Frazier wrote to Tian.
Frazier attended the April 1 class but had a mental breakdown in the middle of it, which another student recorded. The video has been obtained and reviewed by The Hoya.
“You need to stop. You need to stop,” Tian told Frazier during their breakdown.
“I can’t stop,” Frazier said. “I want to learn, too, but it’s hard,” they continued, after Tian threatened to remove them from the Zoom class.
Tian muted Frazier’s microphone. She emailed them later that day saying she was working on their case.
“I am sorry that I had to mute your microphone. I was hoping that it will give you some time to take a deep breath and it will allow me to continue with my lecture,” Tian wrote in the email obtained by The Hoya.
Five days later on April 6, Assistant Director of Off-Campus Student Conduct Victor Lopez notified Frazier that they had allegations of violating the Code of Student Conduct made against them resulting from the April 1 incident. Charges included: “Disorderly Conduct,” “Disruption of Official University Functions,” “Incivility — University Official,” and “Violations of University Regulations,” according to the sanction letter obtained by The Hoya.
Lopez stated that Frazier was required to attend a meeting that same day with the Office of Student Conduct, ending the letter with a final recognition of Frazier’s emotional struggles.
“We want to recognize that your participation in today’s meeting may be stressful for you and that you may find yourself needing to connect with resources for support or assistance,” Lopez wrote in the letter. “We encourage you to do so and to take care of yourself at this time.”
Frazier said they were extremely distressed after receiving the letter and felt at the time that they could be forced out of the university.
“It made me feel terrible,” Frazier said. “It was a really rough time, and I actually ended up in the hospital at the end of that same week.”
The university eventually dropped all potential conduct violations after Frazier sent medical documentation from their therapist and psychiatrist.
With more student advocacy and awareness on campus, community members can work to make the university aware of the accessibility and ADA violations, which will ultimately improve the experience of students with disabilities, according to Frazier.
A Pattern of Mistreatment
While some professors have completely rejected or neglected students’ accommodations, others have been slow to communicate with students regarding how accommodations affect course requirements.
In October 2021, Nino Barbati (COL ’24) received a diagnosis for an active flare of Ulcerative Colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease, and obtained ARC accommodations shortly after which included flexible attendance, the ability to take class fully on Zoom and extended deadlines.
Even with a doctor’s note describing the nature of his illness and his ARC accommodations letter, one of Barbati’s economics professors still failed to adequately communicate with him about course requirements when Barbati was in the hospital for over a month, Barbati told The Hoya.
“He was very negligent in his communication with me, and I had to reach out several times and to get my dean involved in order to get a response from him, because he basically ignored me for six weeks when I was trying to figure out how I was supposed to finish the course, after I’d been in the hospital for six weeks,” Barbati said in an interview with The Hoya. “It was just a lot harder than I thought it should have been in order to be able to get my schoolwork done.”
The professor’s negligence to communicate has caused Barbati significant stress on top of his medical issues, he said.
“Managing a chronic illness is quite fatiguing on its own, and it’s an extra burden to have to be tracking down my professors for guidance about how I’m supposed to proceed,” Barbati wrote in a message to The Hoya.
Barbati is still completing the course and will receive a grade from the professor at the end of the spring semester. As such, Barbati asked The Hoya to withhold the name of the economics professor for fear of retaliation.
The economics department supports students with ARC accommodations, according to economics department interim chair Roger Lagunoff.
“Our department’s policy is that it strongly supports ARC disability accommodations, and any student who feels their ARC accommodations are not being appropriately honored can come to the Department Chair,” Lagunoff wrote to The Hoya.
According to Murphy, it is crucial to educate professors on the importance of accommodations.
“It’s not necessarily that they all just throw out my accommodations,” Murphy said. “It’s just that some people really aren’t educated and don’t understand that that’s really rude and illegal.”
Accommodations should be given to students with disabilities without difficulty, according to Libbie Rifkin, founding director of Georgetown’s program in disability studies.
“It shouldn’t be the burden on an individual student necessarily, even to have to get an accommodation to have their access needs met. I mean, that’s the law,” Rifkin said in an interview with The Hoya.
In the classroom, Rifkin is sure to accommodate all students regardless of their accommodation status. Throughout the semester, Rifkin meets with each student individually to discuss their access needs, and ensures that in every class there is a designated note-taker to alleviate the pressures off of other students.
“This idea of building in an awareness that people learn differently and approach a space differently, and to try to account for that, through these structures that can be helpful to lots of different people,” Rifkin said.
Professors are not the ones to determine what accommodations students receive, and should not choose which to accept and which to reject, according to Hager, of the National Disability Rights Network.
“They should be embarrassed, frankly, to just ignore the requirements and accommodations that have been agreed to that the student needs,” Hager said. “Even if they think, ‘Well, that student doesn’t need it,’ they’re not the ones that have been put in the position to make that determination. That determination has already been made.”
It’s not only professors that are violating the ADA, but also the university, which is failing to properly oversee the implementation of ARC accommodations, according to Hager.
“Ultimately, the university would also be legally responsible,” Hager said. “They’re the ones that have to ensure that students with disabilities’ rights are not discriminated against.”
Despite ADA requirements to adhere to accommodations, some professors have cherry picked accommodations, according to LaHannah Giles (COL ’23), who had this experience when she was enrolled in “U.S. Latinx History” with Mike Amezcua this semester.
“Before the class had started, I sent him my accommodations, because I do receive them from the Academic Resource Center,” Giles said in an interview with The Hoya. “He didn’t quite accept my accommodations — a few he did, a few he didn’t.”
Giles did not want to name specific accommodations she receives for privacy reasons. She has since dropped the course.
The long and formal application process can disqualify some students from seeking accommodations, according to Giles.
“Georgetown has to do a better job of supporting students with disabilities, and also taking this mental health crisis that we’re having seriously. I think everyone knows there’s a crisis happening but no one’s talking about it.”
Amezcua told The Hoya he cannot comment on Giles’ specific situation.
“If a student is concerned about anything in my class, we have to use the appropriate channels to protect student privacy,” Amezcua wrote in an email to The Hoya. “So, I can’t offer any comment on your story, and I unfortunately won’t have an opportunity to share my perspective with a larger community.”
These incidents students have described to The Hoya are not the first accusations about Georgetown’s failure to adhere to accommodations and ADA law. In 2014, the ARC refused to provide an interpreter for a hearing impaired student during the Georgetown University Student Association-sponsored Law School Admission Test prep class.
A year later, students called on the university to improve accessibility and ADA compliance in the wake of ADA class action lawsuits at other top universities. In spring 2016, an external review was submitted to Georgetown’s Division of Student Affairs, describing deficiencies of the ARC, including an inaccessible location and small staff.
By rejecting or negligently ignoring students’ disability academic accommodations, the university and professors are directly violating students’ civil rights, according to Hager.
“The faculty need to realize that these are the civil rights of their students,” Hager said. “How could they even think about violating one of their students’ civil rights?”
Liana Hardy and Claire Stowe contributed reporting.
This article was updated Feb. 4 to include an additional comment from a university spokesperson sent over 12 hours after the story appeared online.
This article was corrected on Feb. 4 to clarify claims attributed to McDermott and Frazier.
This article was corrected on Feb. 5 to correct accommodations Frazier receives from the ARC.
What an important topic to discuss and write about – the conversation around ensuring ALL students receive the equal and best treatment possible to meet their needs needs to be address and furthered asap. Great article.
Mackenzie Glanville says
Wow. What a powerful article. I can’t believe GU and faculty are disregarding the necessary accommodations of students. This must change.
This frankly makes me sick. I am a professor (incidentally, with a disability), and, the fact that the professors’ side of the story is not shared is pretty telling. I have personal knowledge of one of the cases here and, frankly, the article is misleading, likely intentionally so.
Also unmentioned is that in a class, 10-30% of students may file as disabled, and will ask for more time on tests, flexible assignment deadlines, etc. I hope the other 70% of students realize they are being graded on a curve against people with more time on the tests, etc.
Megan Megale says
Interesting comment Don, very much like those who apply for a disabled handicapped sticker for their car, park, and run in to the grocery store. I am sure that annoys you as much as it does me.I do not advocate for those abusing the definition of disability and they do a disservice to those that need accommodations, though I do know this. You have a minority of educators at Georgetown that need to spend a bit less time on their lesson plan and a bit more time on educating themselves on ensuring this very expensive, though prestigious education affords the disabled, equal opportunity to learn. My daughter cannot live on campus because there is no accessible graduate housing, hence we endure getting up 2 hours before a class with a one hour commute. She cannot roll out of bed 10 minutes before class and run 3 blocks to get there. She has little arm strength so needs to take notes on her phone, and she strives to minimise her accommodations because every disabled person wants not to be perceived as different in any way from another, other than her case, physically. Shame on those that take advantage, I agree, but accommodations for those truly in need are necessary so they are not being graded on a curve against people that don’t have to fight so hard for it.